Nathan Keyes and Lena Olin in Maya Dardel (Orion Pictures/Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Maya Dardel is a trenchant, fascinating character study of a famous, solitary writer facing the tail end of her life and the impact of her legacy. It is at times vulgar, intellectual, acidly funny, and tender. What it never becomes is sentimental, and it contains a career performance by the magnificent Lena Olin.

The film begins with Maya in the living room of her mountain home near Silicon Valley. She is giving an interview to NPR in which she states matter-of-factly that she plans to commit suicide, and she is putting out a call for someone to manage her estate and letters when she’s gone. There will be a substantial monetary award and, also, the person applying must be male. This leads to various young men interviewed by Maya, who is aware of her power, and she toys with them emotionally and sexually. She insists each interview ends with an act of cunnilingus.

Eventually, she whittles the number down to two men, a self-satisfied, macho millennial, Paul (Alexander Koch, who resembles a hybrid of Adam Driver and Justin Long) and Ansel (Nathan Keyes), an overly sensitive poet. Paul tries to establish his dominance by essentially raping Maya, who alternately grimaces and laughs throughout the ordeal in the film’s most unsettling moment. But Maya understands the element of power and what that moment represents to Paul, so she asks for him to make her a drink and keeps him on edge before telling him he can return next week. Ansel has a more emotional connection with her, which Maya cannot help but examine and test, and he is also the only person who refused her demand for sex. More than among anyone else, there seems to be a mutual respect.

As played by Olin, Maya is an extraordinary intelligent caged animal. Keening with loss and regret, she is wary of everyone’s motive and constantly questions and probes them in an intellectual duel that is really a power play. The only way she can function is to manipulate and come out on top. Even in repose, Olin’s body belies tenseness, and her eyes dart about intensely.

The film consists of a series of dense one-on-one conversations. Some are revealing, but mostly it is subterfuge. Maya fears aging and loneliness but courts both all the same. The only thing she seems to care for is her early books, but in time, Ansel teases out of Maya something she herself generally considers a weakness: tender and caring.

The script, by directors Zachary Colter and Magdalena Zyzak, is rife with literary and philosophic references. Words and ideas are these people’s purpose for living. Save for Ansel, they are unable to accurately communicate their feelings. One would think with such a focus on the written word, there would be a deficiency in the visual language of the film, but cinematographer Patrick Scola works with a rich palette of browns and yellows, coinciding with the autumn years of Maya’s life. The single location in Maya’s house (actually a property in co-director Colter’s family) is a beautiful home filled to the brim with tchotchkes and various talismans of a life richly lived, yet everything feels like there’s a layer of dust covering them. With various bits of furniture strewn along the property, the sense of loneliness is palpable.

Through all this Maya represents strength and determination and grit. Colter and Zyzak understand and respect that an older woman’s life can be full and rich, yet lonely and regretful. That she can have power and use it and be thrilled by it. That she may well be brilliant and complicated and not neatly fit into the spectrum of a powerful feminist or the wistful spinster, because she may well represent both. And that’s what makes Maya Dardel so wonderful. Colter and Zyzak have given us a character that contains the complexities one usually finds in classic novels. Maya Darnell is unique and she’s representative.

Written and Directed by Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak
Released by Orion Pictures/Samuel Goldwyn Films
USA. 104 min. Not rated
With Lena Olin, Rosanna Arquette, Nathan Keyes, Alexander Koch, and Jordan Gavaris